Memphis Blues Festival Diary
I arrive in the afternoon after a previous sleepless night. My benefactor, Andy Robble, is editor of a top Blues magazine which I will soon start writing for. He was able to get me a room at my favorite Memphis hotel: The Peabody. I arrive and just chill the afternoon resting.
The evening consists of the WC Handy Blues Award Show. I am playing there w/ Tracy Nelson. She is singing "I Want To Know" and Im playing organ behind her (as on her last CD) She is also singing " Send Me To The "Lectric Chair " and Im playing mandolin behind her. Then her band is backing me up on "Made In The Shade." Prior to our appearance, John Sebastian comes out and plays with Yank Rachel, who is one of my idols on mandolin. I just numbly stand there in the wings watching a 200 yr old man play the instrument with all the knowledge and acumen I'll never have! I mean the guy can barely walk but he can sing and play like nobody's biz.
I am truly depressed.
We go out and play, (thankfully 45 minutes later) and it all goes well. Sebastian sits in on Made In The Shade. It kinda works as foreplay for me and I am ready to REALLY go play somewhere on Beale Street. There is a scheduled alleged jam session at BB Kings club at midnight. Cool. I'll head over there. So I go there and at 12:30 I am the only participant on the premises. The place is packed, I'm dyin to play, and there is no one to play with ! Then about 1 AM some band that won the talent contest plays for a half-hour, followed by the female Sa-Fire group. I am too frustrated to stay. I meet Muddy's old guitarist Bob Margolin in the street and explain my plight to him. He points me to another club he just finished jammin' in. I walk over there. It's half empty, but thats cool. The doorman stops me: "Eight bucks cover charge, sir" I show him my artist pass. "Thats good at BB Kings club there across the street only" I look into his power-filled eyes, turn on my heel, and walk back to my room at the Peabody to play the mandolin til dawn.
I actually sleep late (for me) and awake in a great mood. There is a blues museum/vintage guitar shop next door, so I amble over there. I mess with the guitars and find no guilty pleasures but the guy invites me to a free swing through the museum. Can't resist that... and it's GREAT !!!! glass cases with videos in half of them ....tributes to some REALLY worthy people: Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Reggie Young, Rufus Thomas, Sam & Dewey Phillips, Johnny Cash, Roscoe Holcomb, Gus Cannon & the whole Stax & Hi crew. They got the guitar Teenie Hodges played on all the Al Green records ! I get transfixed in there for about 100 minutes......like seeing a whole film about the history of Memphis Music en toto; not just blues. It's not aptly named. I go back to the hotel and it finally clicks that the TV's busted and the payperview movies are free. So I gorge myself on things I NEVER would otherwise: read Jumanji (not half bad - good for tough kids). Tonight there's a Blues Banquet that Andy Robble has invited me to: "Just a free meal and some great people...." Well, why not ? Itll match up with the free movies........
Before dessert, Andy's up there giving a speech and handing out MANY awards to people behind the scenes in the bluesworld: Best club, best agent, etc. I'm sort of trapped so I sit there and make the most of it. It is encouraging that all these people meet once a year and share ideas and reward each other, It's keeping the blues alive and damned if that aint the name of the dinner and the awards. Isaac Tigrett is at our table. Not next to me fortunately cause I woulda started ragging on him about starting those damned Hard Rock Cafe's but he sold those and started the House of Blues chain with Elwood. They're not MUCH better but then he gets an education award (!) and we find out through his acceptance speech that he's putting money back in the community and educating young African-Americans about their heritage and I decide the guy's turned over a new leaf & God bless 'em but I also notice there's ten more awards on the dais and I sneak out.
I walk with some acquaintances down to Beale Street and I'd forgotten it's Friday Night AND the circus is in town (Blues Festival). This is fifty times more crowded than Sixth Street was in Austin during SXSW and plus you can legally walk around with a drink in your hand here. Once again, Mr 52 Year Old is virtually invisible as the young bucks strut their stuff up & down Beale. One of the great things about Memphis is that there is no visible color distinction. People just leave each other alone and let it be. It promotes a friendship and tolerance in the air that is uniquely Memphian. I am again reminded of the 1999 New Years Eve-to-come by the sheer numbers on the street. That will be a musicians hell - that 1999 gig. If I'm still alive, I got it booked at home with a sleeping pill !
Meanwhile, I stroll into The Black Diamond where Ron Levy's Wild Kingdom is to hold forth. Ron is a B3 player and I've always wanted to check him out. My friend Ronny Earl, the great guitarist is there. I stay for a tune but naturally the organ is not miked and is the ONLY instrument you cant hear. As I head for the door, the sound guy makes his way to the stage with a mike for the organ!! Billboard writer Chris Morris points out to me that James Carr is in the club and that stops me dead in my trax. James Carr ???? One of the greatest soul singers of all time who at the peak of his career, went bonkers and spent his rightful lineage in a loony bin !!!!! NOBODY ever gets to stare at James Carr !!! I stay for a few minutes and savor the back of his head. I am truly blessed this evening. I will go home & tell my pal Dan Penn about this - Dan wrote James' biggest hit - "Dark End Of The Street." After five minutes of staring and finally hearing Ron Levy play, I get restless and stroll across the street to hear the slick r& b of The Cate Brothers.
Now this is more like it. These guys can really do the r&b thang even if they are white. I had seen them earlier standing outside the club and they recognized me and we had a nice chat. They invited me to come watch and sit in if I wanted to. Once in, I stood in the mobbed club for five songs, but no sit-invite was forthcoming. Jeez, I will not get to jam in Memphis no matter what. I go back to the Black Diamond and Ronny Earl is onstage jammin with Ron Levy. There is no way in hell Levy will bring me up as he is the leader and there is only one B3 and I understand that. It's an unwritten code. It's 2 AM and I waltz back to the Peabody to fall asleep to a free 12 Monkeys bald Bruno Willis... Hollywood's king of blooozzzz
Oh where do I start ??? Well, I walked over to the festival a coupla hours before we played cause I needed some special equipment and wanted to talk to the stage manager in plenty of time. Needless to say, it's a festival and they couldn't do what I needed done. I was playing with Tracy Nelson & her band as a sideman on B3 organ & mandolin. It was REALLY hot out at those fairgrounds on the ribba and a forceful wind would kick up more than occasionally blowing dust in my face and making what should have been a great hair day miserable. And paranoid me keeps looking up everytime the wind kicks in, so as not to be the next Curtis Mayfield. So its showtime. The MC comes out and blithers: on behalf of six million sponsors welcome to Memphis In May and would you welcome a new band - Stray See Nelson. At least we had a laugh about that. If you add up Stracy's age and mine its over a hundred you nincompoop! New band indeed - after the show Tracy tells the guy she was singin before his parents finally agreed to have him the idiot ! I love her ! We played OK .... and the audience really enjoyed it. After the show, the band was driving back to nashville and I asked them to drop me off at the hotel as I am staying one more night . Lathis evening. So we have to drive all the way along the waterfront through the entire festival crowd to get outa there. Ya know the drill: all these people unaware there's a car behind them and we're drivin literally two miles an hour. One time theres a guy with a Page/Plant shirt on eatin a corndog who is convening on Saturn. It takes three honks to dislodge this guy. He grins at us as we pass him and I start singing: "...And he's riding a corn-dog to heaven....." you hadda be there I guess. So after twenty minutes of this agonizing driving at three m.p.h. , we come to the exit and this guaRD WHO IS NINETY YEARS OLD SAYS: "Can I see your pass, please ? " Tracy says we dont have one; that we have just performed and we need to leave..." He says we have to have a pass. Once again I lose it: "....... Jeeez pal - you're gonna retire in thirty seconds - I tell ya what - throw us out since we dont have a pass... and we'll use this exit here to leave, OK ? " While he ponders this carefully we drive out the exit.
I'm goin home tomorrow cause Id rather see the Bulls Game than Van Morrison or The Subdudes. And no offense intended to these great musicians but I have my priorities.Theres a lot of traffic here in Memphis this weekend. Who knows what will happen tonight ??? Todays free movie was Dead Man Walking and it was truly incredible. Don't miss it ! Great directing !!! Dave Barry says Dead Man Walking should be the name of this piece.
About 5 years ago, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival reached it's saturation point. It went from being a paradise for true music lovers to a summer spring break for every geek with busfare. Well, I stand here and tell ya this year its happened to memphis. It's over. I tried to go see George Clinton tonight, but there were WAY too mANY atomic puppies in my wake. It was NYE1999 (new years eve) for miles & miles. There was no fun in sight/ same on Beale Street. In New York, you sidestep the dogshit. In Memphis this weekend you avoid the puddles of puke. Some inebriated youngster came up to me & said "where can I get a cab?" He was bobbing & weaving like cassius clAy of today. I put my arm on his shoulder and looked at his girlfriend in her training bra and said "Yeah, I remember my first beer" and walked away. I walked back into that same club where Ron Levy was playing. This time there was no James Carr and you STILL couldn't hear the organ. I'm gonna pack up now. This is my last trip to memphis (really crowded) in may. yours too if you're as intolerant as I am. g,night : - )
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