Sunday, July 26, 2015

Adventures in the South - Memphis, Part 3

Last day in Memphis, and our first port of call was the Peabody Hotel, to witness the eccentric but entirely endearing ritual of the Peabody Ducks.  For over 80 years now, the top hotel in Memphis has had a happy band of ducks living in a rooftop haunt, with their own keeper to attend to their needs.  Each morning they descend from their penthouse apartment in the elevator, before scuttling along a roped off red carpet to a fountain in the foyer, watched by a large crowd of chuckling tourists.  Then at the end of the afternoon they jump back out of the fountain and retrace their steps.  Bonkers, but worth a gander, if you'll forgive the mixed wildfowl metaphor!
Duck rituals observed, we took a turn on the Main Street Trolley car, ending up at the National Civil Rights Museum.  At the time of our visit the museum was undergoing a major refurbishment, and its regular exhibition was out of commission.  But no matter, because there was plenty of food for thought to be had from their temporary exhibit, about the assassination of Martin Luther King and the ensuing hunt for the apparent perpetrator, James Earl Ray.
The preamble to the assassination is a telling illustration of why the Civil Rights Movement
The balcony at the Lorraine Motel - downright spooky
was necessary, as King visited and revisited Memphis in the context of strikes among the city's black refuse collectors.  Black sanitation workers were paid less than their white counterparts, and didn't have the same pay and conditions in bad weather, and their discontent was crystallised by the deaths of two black workers due to a malfunctioning bin lorry.  But their protests had been met with a hard line from the recently elected mayor, who resorted to calling out the National Guard in response to demonstrations.

Following the assassination, James Earl Ray escaped to Lisbon and London, via Canada, before eventually being caught.  Now, I can just about accept that a no-mark jailbird like Ray, with no real experience of guns, might have been able to fluke a fatal shooting.  But was he really capable of tracking King's movements around the South for weeks beforehand, and then escaping to Europe with the aid of a false passport?  I ain't buyin'.
As fascinating as the story was, there were two moments in the tour that crystallised it.  The museum is located across a back lot from the Lorraine Motel where King died, and the exhibition included a facsimile of the grimy bathroom where Ray apparently stood in the bath, aimed a rifle out of the window, and fired the shots that killed King.  But more chilling still was walking across the way to the motel, and climbing up to the balcony where he was shot.  Standing there, with the hymn 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' playing over loudspeakers - which King had asked to be played at an event that night - was a deeply eerie experience.  It takes an effort of will to drag yourself away from a scene like that.  But eventually we moved on, encouraged by the midday heat.
After a breather to reflect on the King exhibition, we headed for one last museum stop, away from downtown Memphis - the Stax Museum.  Built on the site of the original Stax studios, it tells the story of how popular music transcended the racial barriers typical of the South, as young black and white musicians hung out together, and then played together on some of the most seminal records in soul music.  It's an inspiring story on the most local level too, when you consider that someone like Booker T. White was genuinely a kid from down the block.
What more needs to be said?
As you progress through the museum the influence of the guys in the background, like Isaac Hayes and his writing partner David Porter, becomes clearer.  Eventually they step out from the writing room and the producer's chair to take centre stage.  Most significantly, in the case of Isaac Hayes, with his composition of the Oscar-winning 'Theme from Shaft', and his headlining performance at the giant Wattstax festival in LA.
Truth be told, the tour is a tad overlong, with too much space devoted to the later, less fresh periods.  But it's interesting to observe how the small beginnings, energy, and relative simplicity of the early days metamorphosed into a level of bling fit to compare with Elvis.  Unfortunately, even as Stax was spawning superstars, the whole enterprise was ultimately undermined by dodgy dealings and unsympathetic building owners, until eventually, obscenely, this landmark Memphis enterprise closed its doors, and the building was torn down.
The museum has been built on the old site, incorporating a replica of the old studio, and also a music college for local kids.  So a phoenix ended up rising from the ashes.  But it's a tale that typifies the carelessness towards black music culture that used to be possible in Memphis - and also enabled the demolition of much of the original Beale Street.  Happily, hopefully, such tragedies are now a thing of the past, as the tourist potential of the city's musical heritage is recognised.
Back downtown, our evening began with a visit to a legendary Memphis eatery.  Just across
The Rendezvous - ribs don't come better than this
the road from the Peabody Hotel, in a basement down a narrow lane, is the Rendezvous - a rib joint that's been visited and endorsed by that well known fan of lip-smacking grub, Bill Clinton.  The ribs lived up to the billing too, even if we wimped out again and opted for half portions.

Over in Beale Street, the musical fare on offer in the Rum Boogie Cafe wasn't up to the quality of the Ghost Town Blues Band from the previous night, as a rather plodding middle-aged crew went through their middle-of-the-road paces.  But down the street in an outdoor spot we caught the last few belters from an old soul queen, while chatting first to a friendly black family who'd driven god knows how far for a visit, and then with a local white couple who seemed to take our similar skin colour as a cue to share some rather sour opinions.
The night finished on a high next door though, in W.C. Handy's, where mein host Chris McDaniel shared vocal duties with Natalie Jackson to knock out a couple of sets of party-mode soul and blues with a well-drilled band, getting the assembled company on their feet and dancing.  As Natalie belted out 'I'm Tore Down', there was a distinct sense that this is what it was all about.

You can find Memphis Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.  Or click here to go to the start of Adventures In The South.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jack J. Hutchinson - Blues Kitchen, London, 6 July 2015

Down in London on business last week I thought I'd check out the Blues Kitchen in Camden High Street, a venue that has live music nightly, and offers up food and drink with a Deep South vibe.  And I have to say that although it inevitably charges London prices, it's a decent place, with a good buzz about it, enjoyable grub, and friendly staff.
The Blues Kitchen - suitably down to earth
Monday night is Rib Night, so I decided to go with the flow and have the special of 2 smoked pork ribs and a smoked beef rib, which turned out to be a daunting plateful even for a trencherman like me.  The place has a lengthy list of bottled craft beers, as well as a selection on draft, and I went for a pint of Samuel Adams to wash down the grub.  It took a while to get through that lot, and to be honest I didn't go the whole hog with the ribs, if you'll pardon the pun.  But after a bit of a break for a rest it was time for some blues.
Jack J Hutchinson had been drafted in at relatively short notice, to replace the billed Niall Kelly.  Hutchinson has an electric band that have apparently attracted some positive noises in the last year or two, but on this occasion he was doing an acoustic set, opening up with 'Heart Beat Like A Hammer', which revealed a good, raw voice in the manner of Rod Stewart, or perhaps more Phil Campbell from The Temperance Movement.  He was accompanied by a fella called Marc Bougerra (no guarantees about the spelling - and I did ask!) playing lead guitar with a good feel and a nice sense of restraint.  They went on to mix together Hutchinson originals such as 'Long Time Coming', which had pleasing if distant echoes of Sam Cooke's 'A Change Is Gonna Come', with covers such as BB King's 'How Blue Can You Get?'.  The latter wasn't an obvious choice, and on the whole wasn't bad, though Hutchinson's rhythm guitar began to seem a bit percussive, and his vocals could have offered more light and shade.  The following 'Hey Hey Hey'
Jack J Hutchinson and chum Marc
was another original, and possibly the best of Hutchinson's material on this evidence - slower, subtle, and a little bit folky, embellished by some neat Latin-styled lead guitar work from Bougerra.  Before taking a break they rattle through a decent turn of Elmore James' 'Shake Your Money Maker', and even if it didn't include a stab at some Elmore-ish slide it did get some young things up and dancing around their table.  An invitation to spilt drinks if you ask me, but good luck to them!
Hutchinson comes back on his own for a while, and though his own song 'Boom' makes interesting use of the title in its chorus it also shows up the tendency to a lack of dynamics.  On this and the following 'Get It Back' it seems that Jack needs to recognise that vocally, less is sometimes more, and that dialling down the power can make it all the more effective when you then choose to punch it home.
Bougerra returns for the more impressive 'Love Is Gonna Bring You Home', which demonstrates more sensitivity, before unfortunately some technical problems with Hutchinson's guitar amplification get in the way.  By the time they get it fixed it's time for me to hit the road, but at least having had a good night all round.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Samantha Fish - Wild Heart

One thing about Samantha Fish, she’s adventurous – not for her a steady stream of 12 bar boogie.  Her first two albums displayed a range of styles, and her new release Wild Heart continues in that vein.  Much has been made of Luther Dickinson being in the producer’s chair this time around, but anyone expecting this outing simply to pay homage to the North Mississippi Allstars’ should think again.
There have been country aspects to Fish’s material before, and here she manages to weave that influence into the blues, as demonstrated by the swinging ‘Blame It On The Moon’ (showcasing Dickinson’s lap steel talents), the dreamy, haunting ‘Lost Myself’, and a playful take on Charley Patton’s ‘Jim Lee Blues Pt.1’.
Sam does cigar box slide
But Sam still rocks too. ‘Highway’s Holding Me Now’ harks back most clearly to the likes of ‘Heartbreaker’ from her previous work.  She then wrenches out some gritty slide on the rousing ‘Turn It Up’, which I’m guessing offered an outing for her 4-string cigar-box guitar.  ‘Bitch On The Run’, meanwhile, cuts loose with a high-revving, Stonesy riff and a squealing slide solo.
In fact I could imagine Mick’n’Keef drooling over much of this album, although the overall effect conjured up more often recalls the earlier work of those students of hill country blues, the Black Keys.
Above all else though, that singular pearl of a voice continues to enthral.  Fish stands out vocally among female blues singers.  Her voice doesn’t have the rasp of a Bonnie Raitt or Susan Tedeschi, for example, nor is she a power-focused blues bawler.  Instead she soars and swoops, ringing out clear as a bell, skipping around the scale, but ever capable of easing back into a tender drawl.  Carefree and careworn are both conveyed in her own distinctive style.  She may be a damn good guitarist, but Sam Fish's voice is a USP if ever there was one.
Quibbles are few.  The opening 'Road Runner' isn't up to her usual standards, while the title track, built on a tense and urgent riff reminiscent of Heart’s ‘Barracuda’, could develop more.  And drummer Brady Blade is a mite too fond of a wet, splashy cymbal sound – something more emphatic would be welcome here and there.  Like I said, quibbles.

Highlights are difficult to pluck out from this lot, but here are two.  ‘Show Me’ offers up a memorable, descending riff that, with the assistance of Blade’s drumming, turns into a lurching stomp that wouldn’t sound out of place on Physical Graffiti.  And to close proceedings, our Sam takes the trance-like hill country blues of Junior Kimbrough’s ‘I’m In Love With You’, and turns it into something achingly romantic.  If there were any justice in the world, this would be a hit single.  But for now, Sam Fish is our secret.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Listened to lately . . .

So what have I been lending my ears to over the last few weeks then?  Well, amongst other things there have been:
Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
Malcolm HolcombeThe RCA Sessions  (This is seriously good.  Think laid back Seeger Sessions.  Think polished up Picnic Sessions.  Think Tom Waits doing Heart of Saturday Night, country-style!)
ThunderWonder Days  (Only discovered by accident that they had a new album out.  Just a couple of listens so far, but Luke Morley still has a handy way with a hard rock riff.)
Samantha FishRunaway and Black Wind Howlin’  (As a precursor to getting my mitts on her imminent new album Wild Heart.  I'll be reviewing that very soon, but meantime here's a taste of her doing 'I Put A Spell On You' on YouTube.)
Ghost Town Blues BandHard Road To Hoe (Really good Memphis band, as mentioned in Adventures in the South – Memphis, Part 2.)

After 50 posts, and 2,500 page views, I only realised recently that my settings for comments were too restricted for anyone to leave a message on the blog.  That’s been fixed now folks, so feel free to share your thoughts on some of the music you’ve been getting an earful of lately!