Monday, January 20, 2014

MEMPHIS ON THE DOWNBEAT: Five Reasons to Support Ghost Town Blues Band in the 2014 IBC

This is the first installment of my series Memphis on the Downbeat, an inside look into Memphis music by a bona fide Memphian and music-lover.

This week Memphis hosts the 30th International Blues Challenge (Tuesday through Sunday at venues all over Beale Street), which every year brings leading blues artists and bands from all over the world to Memphis to battle for bragging rights in a super-compressed, five day, tournament-style music competition.  In order to qualify for entry, artists/bands have to win a "regional" competition first, so the IBC is not only a battle to determine who plays the best blues in the world, but also which part of the world produces the best blues artists.  Repping the 901 this year is Ghost Town Blues Band, a six-piece, high-energy, Beale Street staple who regularly put on shows around town that are best compared to that scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta stabs Uma Thurman in the chest with a direct shot of adrenaline to the heart. That is to say, these guys know how to get a party started.  (For the record, they also know how to keep a party going, to wind everyone up, to cajole or provoke somebody into probably doing something regrettable or getting arrested, but also to guarantee that the next day everyone, hungover and slurring, says: "ohhhh myyyy gaawd, YOU SHOULDA BEEN THERE LAST NIGHT!)   The guys in GTBB are young, hardworking, bona fide showmen who, in terms of Memphis music, definitely lean more toward the pitch-a-wang-dang-doodle-all-night-long side of blues more than the-thrill-is-gone side.  Since Memphis is not only the host city for the IBC but also known internationally as the "Home of the Blues," I always think there's a little more at stake for whichever band gets put up to represent the 901 in the competition. 

This year, though, I've got no worries. We are very well represented by Ghost Town Blues Band.  If you are one of the unfortunate souls who have not yet seen GTBB play live, Imma give you a little insider-look into the band. In no particular order, here are five reasons why you absolutely MUST get out and support Ghost Town Blues Band this week during the IBC:

1.  THE MONSTER, Matt Isbell.  It's both really hard and not-hard-at-all to describe what GTBB frontman, lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Matt Isbell, is like to see live onstage.  I'll just assume already that it goes without saying that he's a great guitarist-- this is Memphis, after all, so you can hardly spit in this town without hitting a great guitarist-- but Isbell is also a truly great frontman.  He's got more than a little bit of Joe Cocker in his voice and stylings, which is usually shorthand for "white boy who can sing the blues," but he's so much more than that.  Isbell should be the poster-boy for Memphis grit and grind: his playing and singing is nasty, messy, gravelly, rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet, for sure, but it's also resolute, purposeful, never self-indulgent and always keyed-into the lyrical and emotional core of whatever GTBB is playing.  Isbell's originals have a heavy helping of Southern-rock in them, so they can sometimes be a little jam-band-y, which I usually hate (GTBB is a notable exception there), but unlike a lot of Southern rock and jam-bands, you never get the feeling that Isbell's songs or performances are indulgent, that they aren't going somewhere and, what is more, you never get the feeling that you don't want to go there with him. Blues music, imho, should always be experienced live, and the live show is where Isbell truly shines.  You never miss the feeling at a GTBB show that they aren't playing for this crowd in this room on this night, in large part thanks to Isbell's often witty, sometimes profane, but always seductive attention to the people in front of him.  The greatest magical trick of any frontman is the ability to make his/her audience feel like this party is all for you, a trick that Isbell has truly mastered.  Trust me, when you see him live, you'll be saying to yourself (in the words of his own song, "Meet Me At The Juke Joint"): "you pour some liquor down my belly and make me feel alright."

2. THE TIMEKEEPER, Preston McEwan.  Drummers really don't get enough credit in Memphis, largely because this is a town where killer guitarists, harp-players and vocalists get the lion's share of audience love.  But don't get it twisted, blues lovers: there never was a decent Memphis blues or soul song that didn't first rest it's grateful ass atop a solid rhythm section.  In GTBB, McEwan is the guy that you probably won't watch, but you totally should.  This guy is a subtle, sophisticated, and amazingly talented timekeeper who-- while you're too busy fawning over the guitar, horns and keys to take notice-- steers that whole ship of fools toward greatness. I've always been partial to the understated drummers, the ones who do their work without needing to be tossed a solo every other song, and McEwan is really the best of these.  He really deserves special props for holding the center as solidly as he does in a band like GTBB, since their tendency to riff and improvise requires constant attention and a truly expert ear on the part of a drummer.  But I would remiss if I did not say that McEwan is soooo much more than simply a timekeeper (as excellent as he may be at that task).  When given the chance to show off, this guy shows the f**k off.  Just hang on to your seats when that moment happens because you'll see McEwan whip his hair back and forth like nobody's business.  And, judging from my own experience at GTBB shows, you'll see what it looks like when the ladies swoon.  Even still, despite all the swooning and fawning he may (deservedly) get for his prettiness-- and, oh yeah, he's pretty-- here's what I think is McEwan's real genius: this guy, like no other drummer I've ever heard aside from The Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts, knows how to sit just behind the beat in a way that makes a song feel messy and organic and awesome without feeling just plain messy. That's real skill, real talent, and a skill and talent that is seriously hard to find.

3. MR. EIGHTY-EIGHT, Jeremy Powell.  I'm just going to say it, and I have complete confidence that anyone who's ever seen him play will agree, Jeremy Powell (aka, "Mr. 88") is the kind of guy that keyboards were invented for.  I mean, c'mon now, his nickname is the number of keys on a piano!  Powell is one of those performers who you will immediately think came to the gig straight from church (which he often did) or else is going to church straight after the gig (which is often is).  Blues music has always had a close familial connection with gospel and Powell is the guy in GTBB that keeps them close to those historical roots.  What's amazing about Powell, though, is that he's not just your average, everyday, church-y Hammon B3 kind of player.  This guy's gonna give you a little boogie-woogie, a little jazz, a little gospel, a little R&B and, if you listen closely enough, a little classical piano-playing style in every sing show.  And, trust me, you will hardly ever see another musician who looks as downright cool playing his instrument as Jeremy does at his keyboards.  (Funny story, when I was filming my documentary WORKING IN MEMPHIS this summer, Jeremy asked that I not film him with a cigarette in his mouth, which was basically impossible.)  Even offstage, I can attest, Powell is not a man of many words, but he can tell you the whole history of Memphis, of music, of poor and rich people, of happy and sad people, of saints and sinners-- hell, he can tell you the whole story of America-- if you just sit him down and let him play for a minute.  But here's the thing that sets Powell apart from other keyboard players in Memphis: he knows how to play with a band.  (Just for the record, so does Chris Stephenson, Memphis' other great keyboardist.)  Try as you might, you won't be able to keep your eyes off of Powell during a GTBB show.  He's just that fascinating... and mysterious.

4. THE BRASS, Suavo Jones and Coleman Garrett.  Memphis horns have a long and grossly under-appreciated history, mostly because our musical neighbor to the South, New Orleans, continues to claim exclusive bragging rights on all things brass.  Well, let me just be the first to say: watch out NOLA, because GTBB is about to make a liar out of you for several reasons.  First, and most importantly, Ghost Town Blues Band has two of the coolest, hippest, most talented, sexiest and definitely the most hardworking horn players alive in the 901.  Suavo and Coleman could literally, all by themselves, BLOW AWAY an entire marching band.  Second, these two guys, all by themselves, are a consummate side-show who make getting out of bed in the morning or, more importantly, not going to bed at night, totally worthwhile.  (They're not just back-up players in GTBB, they're an essential part of the band.  And once you see Suavo's smooth-to-the-groove dancing hip-action while he plays, or Coleman's adorable stank-face while he sings, you'll know that there's no GTBB without these brass boys.)  Third, bonus, is that it turns out almost everyone in GTBB is a brass player.  Often, during a set-break of their live shows, the whole band will trot/stumble outside the club and onto Beale Street, where everybody (including Isbell, Piazza and Powell) grabs a horn and opens up a full-on, NOLA-style, second line show.  Coleman and Suavo may very well be the hardest-working, most underpaid and under-appreciated musicians in Memphis right now, as far as I'm concerned.  There is hardly a band downtown that does not get 100% better the second Coleman or Suavo walks in the door and steps into the show.  There are a lot of reasons to go see GTBB, to be sure, but Suavo and Coleman are THE BRASS TO SHAKE YOUR ASS TO, and you won't find any better than them between here and New Orleans.

5. THE EYE OF THE STORM, Alex Piazza. Okay so first, full disclosure: Alex Piazza is a former student of mine.  That said, I have more than a dozen (current or former) students who are working musicians in Memphis, so my evaluation here is not especially swayed by the fact that I know Alex well.  (And, to be fair, I know all the GTBB guys as friends, so whatevs.)  Piazza is the newest addition to GTBB, who have gone through several bassists recently, but he's definitely the one, a la Jerry MaGuire, who completes the band.  There's no way to describe Piazza except as the eye of the GTBB storm: he's the solid, steady calm around which the winds of totally awesome mayhem of Ghost Town blows.  Alongside Preston McEwan, his rhythm-section partner, Piazza lays down the foundation for everything that makes everything else that is amazing about GTBB possible.  Characteristic of Memphis' bassists in general, Piazza-on-stage is mostly unassuming, mostly subdued, mostly "in the pocket" and mostly invisible.  But, lawdy lawdy, what he does is something to be both envied and admired.  Piazza is a true student of Memphis music-- he actually can/does play almost every instrument featured in the band-- so the fact that he's put himself in the (musically-speaking) architectural position is no surprise whatsoever.  And like everyone else in this band, Piazza is a grinder, a hardworker, who clearly understands that there are a thousand hours one must pay for (and before) any hour that one may (or may not) get paid.  Okay, so yeah, I may be prejudiced, but don't overlook the genius of Alex Piazza.

That's my summary, Memphians, for why you should get off your couches and outta your houses to come support Ghost Town Blues Band in this year's IBC. Or, if you can't (which, really WHY CAN'T YOU?), here's the place where you can buy their music.  But as anyone who's ever attended any kind of competition at all know, the hometown advantage is only an advantage if the hometown people show up.

This is a band to SHOW UP for, Memphis.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Memphis on the Downbeat: Loud, Live and Better Than Ever

One of the things that I've resolved to do in 2014 is devote more space on this blog to Memphis, THE GREATEST CITY IN THE WHOLE UNITED STATES.  (C'mon, really, pick a fight with me about that claim. You will lose.)  As I've said many times before, in private but more often in public, there is very little I love in this world more than Memphis, which falls just behind my family and Philosophy on the list of Things For Which I Would Riot In The Streets. What I know the most and the best in Memphis is the local music scene, so I was a bit surprised when I realized that I've written precious little about it on this blog before.  Imma fix that.  Post haste.

Last summer, as RMWMTMBM readers know, I made my first documentary film (with my very talented student, Sophie Osella) entitled WORKING IN MEMPHIS, which told the story of a number of present-day working Beale Street musicians. (You can watch the documentary in full here.)  Contrary to a lot of people's beliefs, living and working as a musician in Memphis is NOT an easy road.  We tried to show a little of that in our documentary, but we also wanted to show how much love, passion and commitment our local musicians have for Memphis, for Memphis' history, for the blues and for each other. The "legend" of Memphis is that we are the home of the blues, the birthplace of rock-n'-roll, and of course that's true.  But if you think that's the story of a bygone past, you're very sorely mistaken.

In Robert Gordon's excellent book It Came from Memphis and also in his newest (and equally excellent) book Respect Yourself, he quotes an unnamed local sage as saying: "Memphis is a town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does."  True that.  It seems to be woven into the character of Memphians to encounter the world as if the deck is already stacked against them, which most Memphians know it almost always is.  Even still, we endeavor anyway.  We make a little something out of nothing, and then we make a little something go a loooong way. We get up, we show up, we go to work (or we make work where work can't be found), we scrap and scrape and hustle.  We're all heart, grit and grind.  We believe in the impossible.

Yeah, maybe it's true that nothing ever happens here, but that's all the more proof that the impossible always does.  Why?  Because everything that happens here ought to have been impossible... at least according to the experts and their studies, their endlessly-disparaging ratings and rankings, their calculations of every available statistical set of social, political and economic data, all of which indicate that it would've been better for Memphis to slide off its bluff and into the Big Muddy years ago.

What most people outside of Memphis don't know, unfortunately, is that our long-cultivated, historically-refined and greatest home-grown resource, which we now call "grit and grind" but which used to go by the more conventionally-known name "civic engagement," is alive and well and downright thriving here.  Today, the 901 is nothing short of a massive cultural compost station, nourishing (cheaply and organically, like composts do) a truly unbelievable garden of artistic, intellectual, political and communal activity.  There are a ton of blogs/sites where you can read about Memphians' ingenuity for making-something-out-of-nothing-- check out Crosstown Arts, Livable Memphis, Greater Memphis Greenline, I Love Memphis, Memphis Gun Down, Stax Music Academy, Levitt Shell, DittyTV and Bike/Ped Memphis just for a (very limited) sample-- but, in my view, there just aren't enough that focus exclusively on contemporary Memphis music, which is and has always been our mainstay.

So, over the next couple of months, I'll be featuring a number of  Memphis bands/artists on this blog in a series I'm calling "Memphis on the Downbeat." (If you don't know what a downbeat is, take a second and read my good friend Zandria Robinson's excellent piece "Playing on the One": Memphis Soul from Teena Hodges to Tonya Dyson!)  Just to throw you a bone, I'll let you know that almost all of the musicians featured in my WORKING IN MEMPHIS documentary will show up here over the next several weeks, including Chris McDaniel, Earl "the Pearl" Banks, Vince Johnson, Eric Lewis, Clyde Roulette, Ms Zeno, The Memphis BluesMasters, Suavo SilkySmooth Jones, Brad Birkeedahl, Don Valentine, The Memphis Three and Ghost Town Blues Band.... not to mention a lot of other hardworking musicians that you didn't see in the documentary. I'll also be featuring a few Memphis musicians/bands who are no longer local, but who still love, support and want to pay credit back to the 901 music scene.  (There are gonna be some BIG ONES among that last group!)  As many of you know, the International Blues Competition will be taking place here in Memphis in just a couple of weeks, so I'm hoping that I can catch some great performances/photos to share from that as well.  At any rate, stay tuned here for an insider's peek into Memphis music over the next several weeks!

And don't ever forget: Memphis is a place where the impossible happens.

Friday, January 03, 2014


At long last, I've finally gotten all my (administrative, bureaucratic and legal) ducks in a row and I am now able to share with you the documentary film that my student Sophie Osella and I made several months ago: WORKING IN MEMPHIS. Last summer, I posted periodically about our process of making the film here on this blog, but the 14+ hours Sophie and I were working every day made it practically impossible for me to keep up with the blogging or to tell the whole behind-the-scenes story.  Trust me, there are a thousand amazing stories behind the making of this film.  If you want to hear them, I invite you to come to Memphis, accompany me to a show of one these amazing musicians, buy me a drink and let me regale you with The Awesome.

There just aren't words adequate enough to capture the unbelievable admiration, the undying respect or the unconditional love that I have for the artists featured in this film, each of whom were so very patient, so very kind and so very tolerant of Sophie and I while we pushed ourselves all-up-in-their-bizness during our filming of their interviews and live shows over the course of a couple months. As is evident in our film, the Beale Street community is a family with a long history and a lot of love.  They welcomed us into that family with open arms and with no objections, and I cannot possibly thank them enough. So, let me just say in advance:

For those of you who live in Memphis: GET OFF YOUR ASS AND SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL ARTISTS!

It's really this simple:  "Art" is that one thing, maybe the ONLY thing, that we humans do that has no obvious utilitarian value.  We don't do it because it feeds us or shelters us or protects us from enemies.  We do it because we are a very special kind of animal that needs, wants and loves to create (sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible) things to share, things that make us laugh and cry and sing and dance, things that enliven our imagination, things that elevate our everyday minutiae to a level that encourages us to believe the mundane can be transcended and, most importantly, things that connect us to one another.  If you can't take some of those stupid little paper bills out of your pocket and support that  when you see it happening right before your very eyes, if you can't support the human creation of beautiful art, then you've really missed the whole point of being a human being.

Special thanks to all the musicians who made this film possible, including: Earl "the Pearl" Banks, Brad Birkedahl, Ralo "the Rock" Brown, Patrick Dodd, Jesse Dotson, Coleman Garrett, Joyce Henderson, Matt Isbell, Eric Lewis, Suavo Jones, Natalie James, Vince Johnson, Chris McDaniel, Steve Newman, Jeremy "Mr. 88" Powell, Clyde "the Slide" Roulette, Linier Smith, Don Valentine, Nicole "MS Nickki" Whitlock, Ruby "The Queen of Beale Street" Wilson, Verlinda Zeno, The Memphis BluesMasters, The Plantation AllStars, Ghost Town Blues Band, The Memphis Three, and anyone else that I may have forgotten.

Here it is: WORKING IN MEMPHIS.  (I recommend you watch it in full-screen, of course.)  Enjoy!

Working in Memphis: A Documentary from Leigh Johnson on Vimeo.