Monday, May 22, 2006

Funky Memphis Keeps Hottest Music To Itself

From the Hollywood Reporter comes this reminder of the most important asset of Memphis Music - the music being created right now - and why we need to do a better job of showcasing and supporting it. If we're looking for the best indicator of success for Memphis Music, it's measured by the money being put into the pockets of today's musicians, not merely the numbers of tourists visiting yesterday's sites:

Interesting town, Memphis. I was reacquainted with that fact when I spent 10 days there early this month on what I laughably called "vacation."

I went down to the Bluff City to attend the annual Beale Street Music Festival and the fifth Ponderosa Stomp, temporarily relocated from New Orleans to Memphis this year (HR 2/23). I also poked around the city's small, noisy, smoky bars and schmoozed with the locals.

I was reminded again that there are two Memphises. The one most people know is the city of Graceland, the redeveloped and Disney-fied Beale Street and such sites as the Stax Museum and Sun Studios. (Hi Records, home of Al Green, does not yet have its own shrine, but give it time.) Elvis, rockabilly, Southern soul -- that heritage continues to draw the tourists.

But the rock music made in today's Memphis remains largely invisible to out-of-towners. It doesn't make it downtown, but you can hear it almost any night in the city's midtown joints.

I managed to catch some astonishing stuff. Local indie goddess Alicja Trout, who fronts three bands, played a thrilling set Friday at Murphy's with the quintet Mouserocket. A Recording Academy event Saturday at a downtown warehouse showcased Secret Service, a punchy, Southern-fried hard rock band featuring guitarist and second-generation Memphis musician Steve Selvidge, and Brad Postlethwaite & Friends, a new project by a member of the chamber-rock collective Snowglobe.

You probably have not heard of any of these fine performers, for contemporary Memphis rock seldom makes its way outside the city limits. It's only the rare act like the North Mississippi All Stars and Lucero who get on the national map.

Memphis almost is a Bizarro World version of neighboring company town Nashville. Infrastructure? Forget about it. The only thing Memphis has a lot of is studios. Well-capitalized indie labels are few; many performers issue music on their own hip-pocket imprints. Managers, attorneys and booking agents also appear in short supply. And who's the top "rock" seller this week at local indie distributor Select-O-Hits? Jimmy Buffett.

Add to this mix a generalized suspicion of the musical establishment by the town's indie-rockers, and an equally pronounced apathy on the part of local audiences and city fathers, and you have a musically robust community that remains steadfastly balkanized commercially.

It might be left to the city's rap community to lead the rock brethren out of the wilderness. Three 6 Mafia's surprise best original song Oscar win for their "Hustle & Flow" track "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" made a nationwide impression, and homeboy Al Kapone, whose "Whoop That Trick" also is heard in Craig Brewer's film, continues on the rise.

During the Beale Street fest, Kapone performed a rambunctious set backed in part by the Bo-Keys, an indie-rock/funk crossbreed that includes Stax vets Skip Pitts, Ronnie Williams and Willie Hall. The band is led by bassist Scott Bomar, who scored "Hustle & Flow" and is composing for Brewer's upcoming "Black Snake Moan."

Watching the rappers and instrumentalists interacting so vibrantly onstage in Tom Lee Park, one began to dream that a new day of cooperative black and white music-making could birth another glory era in Memphis. Here's hoping, y'all.


mike said...

That's what I've been saying. Now, how do we get to the solutions?

autoegocrat said...

If you can simply survive in Memphis on your own creative talent, whether it be as a musician or as a visual artist, you can go somewhere else and succeed. Many do.

Crowd sizes have always been small here when compared to other cities. I've always suspected that if Memphis had a more robust middle class, more people would support the local music scene.

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