11 hours from Dallas to Nashville. That’s what we were staring down in order to cover the Music City Jazz Festival this year. With too much equipment and three people in our crew, flying was not going to happen. 11 hours cramped into the Jazz mobile watching 700 miles of America flow on by. 11 hours with Dave and Liz and Me. 11 hours.
Since Dave was probably thinking the same thing, he suggested leaving a day early and go to Memphis. “That will break up the drive and how can play Blues without paying homage to the Home of the Blues?” “Plus, we can also go to Sun Studios”. My rockabilly roots couldn’t pass that up. Ok Dave, a quick dinner on Beale Street, an early night, tour Sun Studios, back on the road by noon.
(Sorry for the poor quality of the videos but they were taken with our little handheld camera, not our good stuff)
So we arrive bright and early at Silky O’Sullivan’s, to listen to the Reigning Queen of Beale Street, Barbara Blue. A fixture at Silky’s where she’s been performing 5 nights a week for 20 years. As you see from the video, she turns the place into a smoky backroom blues bar in spite of the cigarette bans and daytime baseball on the screen. Audience interaction is a must and we knew everybody when we left. You can experience the feeling yourself on her three live at Silky’s CD and other discs available here.
She finished her set and started walking down Beale taking in the views with Dave singing “Walking in Memphis, Walking with my feet ten feet off Beale” when I catch the namesake of my musical idol, Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe and Honky Tonk, well I wasn’t passing that up. Relatively new on the scene, Jerry Lee’s is a shrine to the Killer himself. Now, of course, Jerry doesn’t play much anymore, (He’s playing two dates in New York on Saturday) the spirit is still there in the back bar with Fred Norman taking command. Fred really brings the energy and spirit of good old fashion rock and roll back home. As you see here, he is all over the place (as out of it). I never wanted to leave but since we were there to experience Beale Street, we pressed on.
Needing to regroup and not having a plan, we needed a spot to have a quick drink and move on. Then right there was a little corner bar, isn’t that handy. Ironically called The Handy Bar. An open air bar with a two tall boys for $5 special and the beautiful Memphis night overhead. (When did the sun go down?). It’s the kind of place that you would miss while staring at the neon. That would be a huge mistake. With some of the friendliest staff on the strip and great house bands, The Handy Bar is the diamond in the rough of Beale street.
We stopped for a beer when Bad Boy Matt and the Amazing Rhythmatics, we’ll call it, took the stage. Much like the bar itself, it wasn’t really a show but a group playing music for it’s own love and you get to listen as well. Blues, Reggae, even a little shuffle occasionally, Bad Boy Matt and the Amazing Rhythmatics just keep playing incredible music effortlessly and endlessly. You can get so caught up in laid back groove that you can spend hours here. I didn’t think we did but the bill and pyramid of tall boys suggest otherwise. Here’s their take on the Allman Brothers classic Midnight Rider.
So by now, we are totally in the pocket (Deep Pocket as it were) and feeling the cool Memphis night with the stars above. We were about to start walking back to the hotel when we passed the Rum Boogie Cafe and felt the beat of Vince Johnson and the Plantation AllStars taking command. Unlike the Handy Bar, Rum Boogie is the very image of what you would think a Beale Street Blues bar would be. Two hundred autographed guitars and, my personal favorite, Isaac Hayes’ cape. Everything in here says Memphis Blues including The Plantation AllStars. Great down and dirty electric blues. Some great covers such as Dock of the Bay and this one, The Stevie Ray Vaughn classis, Pride and Joy.
Well needless to say, we stayed for the rest of set. Vince Johnson and the boys are really starting to make some waves on the Blues scene and have just finished their first CD. Needless to say, you will be hearing them on our new Blues show we are starting up and they will likely be playing a festival near you very soon. They are worth checking out. However if you watch the video closely, you may be asking yourself the same question we were. Why does the bass player have more strings than they guitar player? As the crowd thinned out at closing time, we talked to Alan Johnson about that. It turns out that it’s very special bass and it gave us the catch phrase for the rest of the trip.
So there we go. One little stop over on our way. Down one side and up the other. A quick little experience. Of course, it’s now 2 A.M. and we are stumbling back. We spent nine hours and only covered four bars. We never even touched B.B. King’s. Beale Street is everything you imagine it is. It sucks you in and keeps hold of you all night long.
The only problem was when we woke up at noon we were too exhausted to take the tour of Sun Studios. We still had a three hour drive to Nashville. It was a very quiet drive with lots of coffee and sunglasses keeping us protected against the world. We arrived in Nashville, barely, sort of made it to the hotel and dropped on the bed. We missed the pre-festival party at the Hard Rock meeting the artists. It taught me a few things.
Beale street is an experience that every music lover should have. You need days to cover Memphis. We didn’t even finish one street much less everything that is cool about the city. Finally, never let Dave talk you into a side trip when you are on a schedule.