More Stories
Stax Music Academy to play Levitt Shell, European tour
(image) Yesterday I stopped by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music for the thousandth time. It never gets old; it is, as Steve Cropper once said of working there, “like going to church.” This time around, I focused on the little things that I may have passed by earlier. Duck Dunn's pipe, the marked-up tape box for a Mar-Keys session, Al Jackson, Jr.'s “peace-sign bootjack to remove his boots after a day of studio sessions.” And then there were the current exhibits: Hit the Road, Stax! Wayne Jackson and the 1967 Stax/Volt European Tour (through Sept. 30), A Century of Funk: Rufus Thomas at 100 (through Aug. 31), and the most stunning, Portraits in Soul: Rare Images from the API Archive. This last exhibit, featuring gallery-quality prints of Stax artists' publicity shots, most in stunning color, will end on Labor Day, so get there while you can.
But what's most sanctified about the reborn Stax complex is that it's not just a museum. I also stopped in to see where the Stax Music Academy summer students have been rehearsing, next door in the Soulsville Charter School gymnasium. At the time, they were taking a well-deserved break, shooting hoop and singing karaoke, but even then it was clear that these young people shared a powerful camaraderie. This year's Summer Music Experience included the usual in-depth instruction in Stax history, vocals, instrumentals, marketing, audio engineering, songwriting, and choreography, as provided by the Stax Music Academy staff. Students also attended intensive sessions with multi-instrumentalist, keyboardist extraordinaire, and producer Booker T. Jones. As a grand finale for the summer program, they will light up the Levitt Shell this weekend, presenting such classics as Isaac Hayes' “Theme from Shaft,” Shirley Brown's “Woman to Woman,” and two dozen other Stax songs.
Finally, on July 7, a select group of twelve students will embark on the Stax Music Academy European Tour, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the original overseas tour by the Stax/Volt Revue. In 1967, this tour represented an epiphany for many of the label's artists, as they witnessed sold out shows across England and the continent. When the artists returned home, they had a new sense of their music's appeal and importance, propelling them to even greater heights in the years to come. Following in their footsteps, the academy students will open for Stax legend Mavis Staples on July 17th in Bristol, England at Colston Hall (one of the original 1967 tour venues), and open for Stax icon and recent GRAMMY winner William Bell on July 21st at the Sage Gateshead Americana Festival in Sage/Newcastle, England. Be assured that the students of today's reborn Stax will return to Memphis on a note of inspiration, much as their forerunners did half a century ago.

Memphis Concrète Festival: Making Synthesizers Weird Again

Just up the river from Memphis, in 1944, one of the first compositions known as musique concrète was presented, The Expression of Zaar, using manipulations of wire recordings to create an audio collage independent of the sources it was based on. The composer was Halim El-Dabh, and while he was closer to Memphis, Egypt, than the Bluff City, it's somehow fitting that by the 21st century, his approach has gained a foothold in Tennessee. Nowadays, of course, synthesized sound permeates nearly every genre, but it generally owes more to the tradition of disco or synth pop. Yet the tradition of musique concrète lives on as well, and Memphians will get a heavy dose of it in this weekend's Memphis Concrète Festival.

It may come as a surprise that most of the festival's acts are local or regional. While Tav Falco combined synthetic noise with rock-and-roll as early as 1979, a torch now carried forward by the NOTS, the textural (as opposed to melodic) use of synthesizers among locals has otherwise remained under the radar for most labels and media. But Robert Traxler, who organized the festival, found that once he began looking, an entire world of such artists emerged. "You start talking to people, and it kinda snowballs," he said. "I'm hearing so much stuff that was completely new to me. And some of it just right here in town. You may not see them a lot, but you know there are more people out there than what you see firsthand. So a lot of my drive was to find people that are in fragmented scenes and bring them together."

Traxler notes that, out of more than two-dozen acts, "the majority are from Memphis." Even among these local acts, "the variety is pretty exciting. You have some ambient, drone, experimental dance music, noisier stuff, and some that's more abstract. A lot of different artists representing different subgenres." Among the Memphis acts, >manualcontrol

What surprised Traxler most was the variety of artists emerging from Mississippi, including the noise textures of Pas Moi and the edgy dance sound of Argiflex from Cleveland, Hattiesburg's NEPTR and Division of Labor, Jackson's Blanket Swimming, and Oxford's Ben Ricketts, who is also known as a more traditional singer/songwriter. Beyond our neighbor to the south, look for artists from as close as Nashville and as far afield as Virginia. Pittsburgh's snwv (pronounced "sine wave") is notable for his generative, systems-based approach, which sets up sonic layers that interact according to loose parameters that evolve independently.

This "generative music" can also be experienced in one of the free exhibits that open each day of the festival. Saturday's exhibit, called "You Are Standing in a Room," involves a feedback system based on noises from the surrounding space, which processes and re-processes them into new sounds that gradually amplify the room's particular overtones. Traxler himself developed this for the festival, inspired by the work of experimental composer Alvin Lucier. Sunday's free exhibit, "Hand–>Ear," while not premised on any particular conceptual approach, will feature a theremin (the world's first electronic instrument, invented in the 1920s) and various materials connected to microphones that patrons themselves can play and process with effects.

Finally, Saturday's grand opening will include a screening of Forbidden Planet in its entirety, with the original score replaced with compositions by Traxler and other collaborators. While the original dialogue will remain in the mix, scenes without dialogue will be re-imagined with the new music performed in real time. All in all, it promises to be a unique event for Memphis: an ambitious weekend of experiments for the aurally adventurous.

Belvedere Chamber Music Festival brings classical performers and composers from around the globe.
(image) People the world over associate the Bluff City with the sounds of rock-and-roll, the blues, jazz, Stax-flavored soul, and Goner’s brand of garage-punk. Classical music rarely gets a mention in that list — despite the accomplished Memphis Symphony Orchestra (see Chris McCoy’s cover story below), the PRIZM Ensemble (see Alex Greene’s June 15th column), and others. The Luna Nova Ensemble is another hidden gem for the music lover in search of something a little more refined.

Luna Nova Music is celebrating the 11th annual Belvedere Chamber Music Festival at Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church June 21st-24th. The festival will include performances of works by Bach, Bartok, Martinů, and Ravel, as well as original compositions by three composers selected from the 189 entrants to the Luna Nova student composition contest.

Patricia Gray, Ph.D., is the executive director of Luna Nova Music. Gray has been a musician her whole life and once taught in the music department at Rhodes College, after which she began working with the music tech division of the Associated Colleges of the South, a consortium of colleges like Rhodes. “That was a springboard,” Gray says. “That’s where Luna Nova came from, because I was working with a lot of composers and performers of new music who were from small colleges, and they didn’t all have the support that they would like to have. So we were able to blend a lot of resources from a number of institutions and build an ensemble and build a concert series and create a lot of wonderful networking between really talented people. That just started with a bang.”

Gray couldn’t help but notice that students, talented though they might be, did not always have access to the funds, technology, or professional performers necessary to lay down a high-quality recording of their compositions. And it’s exactly that kind of recording that a student bound for post-graduate studies or a career in recording or performance would need. Gray and her husband Robert Patterson found a void in the music community, and they set about filling it.

Luna Nova was initially funded by a Mellon Grant, but when the grant ran out, Gray and Patterson kept the ball rolling. They established Luna Nova as a private 501(c)(3), and with the help of Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, they began the Belvedere Chamber Music Festival to showcase the composing talents of students worldwide and the performance abilities of local and national classical musicians. “Since we’ve been independent in Memphis, it’s been worldwide,” Gray says. “We’ve had people from France and Italy and Australia and China.”

This year marks the 11th anniversary of the Belvedere Chamber Music Festival, and once again, Luna Nova has partnered with the Beethoven Club, a group of local musicians dedicated to the promotion and sustenance of classical music, to put on the international student composition contest. The winners of this year’s contest are Alex Burtzos from New York, Brendan McMullen from Seattle, and Jack Frerer from Australia. (Fun fact: Burtzos is the founder and president of ICEBERG New Music collective, a group that has been working with Memphis’ own Blueshift Ensemble during a residency at Crosstown Arts this week, see below.) Each of the three composers boasts a list of impressive bona fides, and each will have a piece performed in this year's festival.

The performers will be John McMurtery (flute), Gregory Maytan (violin), Nobuko Igarashi (clarinet), Craig Hultgren (cello), Paul Murray (baritone), Perry Mears (piano), Daniel Gilbert (violin), Tomaz Robak (piano), Jonathan Kirkscey (cello), Marisa Polesky (violin), Jenny Davis (flute), Brian Ray (piano), Robert Patterson (horn), Mark Volker (guitar), and Michelle Vigneau (oboe).

The Belvedere Chamber Music Festival will be presented at Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on June 21-24, 2017. Evening concerts start at 7:30 and are free and open to the public. Afternoon concerts are Thursday and Friday at 3:00.
'From Memphis to the Mersey' forges trans-Atlantic bonds
(image) Memphis has long figured in the musical imagination of Liverpool, England. One need only visit the Cotton Museum on Front Street to see the more fiduciary connections, as commodities made their way from the Mississippi shores to British ports for hundreds of years. But with the bills of sale went less mercantile influences, including songs and eventually records carried by seamen between such ports of call. The Beatles, especially George Harrison, were famously obsessed with Carl Perkins, Elvis, and other giants of Sun Records; they also nearly recorded Revolver at Stax Records, hoping to adopt the snap and crackle of the drums captured on McLemore Avenue.

But this fascination ran both ways. Nearly every guitar group springing out of Memphis was spurred on by the Beatles and other Merseyside groups. Certainly the Beatles loomed large over classic records by Tommy Burke and the Counts and, later, Big Star. Within the span of three years, Bobby Whitlock moved from recording handclaps during Stax sessions to contributing nearly all of the organ heard on Harrison's All Things Must Pass.

Thus, it's appropriate that these deep, soulful connections be recognized in a new program for songwriters called “From Memphis to the Mersey,” arising from a partnership between the local Memphis Music Exchange and Liverpool's Monkey Mind Productions. Described as “a songwriters’ exchange that will select two emerging artists from each city for an immersive cultural and creative experience on both sides of the ocean,” the program invites songsmiths to submit their work for consideration. They must be at least 21 and not currently signed to a label.

The lucky four judged most promising will work with Grammy-winning Stax legend William Bell and jazz singer/producer Susan Marshall from Memphis, and with Garry Christian and Joey Ankrah of The Christians, a Liverpool group that scored chart-toppers in the 80s and 90s. This August, spending three days in each city working with such legends, the winning contestants will gain a deeper insight into their craft and into the commonalities of their shared history. Each city visit will culminate in the songwriters presenting their work in concert.
“Hands across the water (water)/Heads across the sky!”, as Paul McCartney famously sang in “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” Now's the chance, thanks to these nonprofits and the support of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau and Arts Council England, to reach out and make that connection more real than ever.

Interested parties should apply at the link below by 6 pm, Monday, July 26.
A Record Swap at Ground Zero for Choice Vinyl
(image) Memphis is a record-lovers town if there ever was one. Maybe it's the city's storied history, and the megatons of vinyl that originated here. Maybe it's due to the rich subculture of thrift stores and estate sales, so ripe for bin scavenging. Or it could be the high per-capita density of musicians, who tend to favor the rich sound of analog. For whatever reason, and probably all of them, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to records stores, with three top-notch shops in midtown alone.

But the availability of vinyl is about to increase exponentially over the weekend. The Soulsville Record Swap this Saturday, June 17, will bring together local record dealers and others from as far away as Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, New York, and Minnesota. Hosted by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, in collaboration with Goner Records, music lovers can expect crates upon crates of vinyl, from the common to the ultra-rare. DJ's will spin their favorite platters, and food trucks from Arepa 901, Sandwiches & More, and MemPops will be right outside, making this an event worth seeing and hearing even if you don't buy any wax at all. The event is free, though any early birds seeking that rare copy of The Worms can pay $10 to be the first in the door at 10:00.

And if you want to warm up to the event, there's a pre-swap party at the Memphis Made Tap Room on Friday, where you can hob-nob with fellow enthusiasts. That's where one can often learn a thing or two. And to keep the conversation flowing, Memphis Made has crafted a special brew, Swap Hop, which will be on tap and in carry-out bombers. Goner DJ's will be manning the turntables as well. Here's a little '45 to get you in the mood...maybe you'll find a copy for yourself.

Soulsville Record Swap will be held at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 926 E. McLemore Ave. (in the Stax Music Academy Building next door), 11:00-4:00 p.m., free admission; 10:00 a.m. early bird entry for $10.00.

Pre-swap party is at Memphis Made Tap Room, 768 S. Cooper St., 7:00 p.m., free admission.

Me and Leah set to celebrate debut CD
(image) This week, the folk-pop duo Me and Leah will release its debut album – a sparse and beautiful 9-song, self-titled effort – on the digital label American Grapefruit.

Me and Leah is a new endeavor for Memphis music mainstay Jeff Hulett, who trades in the highly orchestrated grandiosity of previous projects like Snowglobe and Glorie for an understated presentation of some of his best material to date, collected from his various projects over the years. His partner-in-crime, local musician and artist Leah Keys, provides a perfect backdrop for his earnest songwriting and voice with a plucky banjo and ethereal vocals.

“We couldn't be happier. It represents what we do live. No frills with this album - it is what it is and we are excited to release it,” says Hulett. “We are both big fans of short and simple songs. Songs that have good lyrics and get to the point, but are also catchy and memorable. This record clocks in at 30 minutes. It's a good cooking dinner album.”

The album was recorded and mixed entirely in one day – April Fool’s Day, no less – at High/Low Recording under the watchful eyes of house engineers Toby Vest and Pete Matthews.

“Toby and Pete ran point and really helped us realize the vision we had,” says Hulett. “Recording was very comfortable. It was Leah's first go in a studio so I was a little nervous going in, but she was a total champ and killed it. Recording with just two people is so much more manageable.”

To celebrate the release, Me and Leah is throwing a party at the Amurica space in Crosstown this Friday, June 23 at 7 p.m. sharp. The excellent Jana Jana (Jana Misener from the Memphis Dawls) will open the show, and the $10 admission charge includes a free copy of the Me and Leah album on CD.

As for the band’s future, Hulett looks forward to a time when he and Keys might expand their songwriting partnership (“We are starting to write more songs together now,” he says), and even the direction of the band itself. But for now, the duo is dedicated to simply promoting its fine debut as a two-piece.

“It's not something we are focused on now, but I can't help but hear some of these songs with bass and drums and maybe some Whittemore (John, local lead guitarist),” says Hulett.

Listen Up: Seth Walker

Seth Walker constantly moved when he played centerfield in a pair of cleats on the baseball field.

He never dreamed he’d one day be performing his original country songs in a pair of cowboy boots on stage.

A lot of things Walker, 28, never thought about five years ago now are realities.

“I never thought my album would go to No. 20 on the iTunes chart,” he said. “It’s kind of been almost too fast. We’ve opened up for seven people who are on national radio.”

Walker and his band’s show sold out the last time they played at The Bluff. The line stretched down the block, he said. “I had no idea it was going to lead to something so big.”

Growing up in Memphis, baseball was Walker’s passion. “I played in high school at Christian Brothers. Then I went and played at Northwest Mississippi in college and Lee University.”

He picked up the guitar in high school, but he wasn’t serious about it. “I got like two chords down. I tried, but I just wasn’t dedicated enough to learn it. And then playing baseball all the time - that pretty much took over my whole life.”

Walker’s dream of a baseball career suddenly came to an end. “Right before the draft my senior year I decided to go play basketball with some friends. I tore my patella tendon in my knee. I was going up for a layup and somebody undercut me. I just remember my kneecap being up there. And I had to have surgery the next day. They told me that I probably wouldn’t play baseball again for a long time. I was 22.”

Baseball was his life. “I went into a really bad depression after that ‘cause I thought I was going to do that for the rest of my life. I just got real down. I couldn’t move for a month and a half or two months. I was just watching ‘Criminal Minds’ on the couch for a while. Scared the hell out of me and depressed me even more. It probably wasn’t a good show to watch.”

He picked up a copy of Tim Tebow’s “Through My Eyes.” “It really inspired me to get up off the couch and go to physical therapy. Just the fact that the guy is a winner. His passion for everything that he does. His mental strength. Nobody’s better than him. And he’s going to outwork you no matter what. It just got me off my butt.”

Walker’s brother, Brad, invited him to play in the youth choir at church. Walker showed Brad how to play a couple of chords back in high school.

Walker began selling insurance and was successful at it. “I started coaching at Southwest (Community College). I did that for a year, but it was interfering with my insurance job, so I had to stop.”

In addition to the church group, Walker played guitar and sang “just with friends. Actually, it took me quite a while to sing in front of that many people. It’d just be a bunch of our friends drinking at the pool. Just messing around on the guitar.”

Walker made an insurance call at Coffee in the Attic, a Covington coffee shop. “I went in there to get their business and asked the guy, ‘Do you all have live music?’ My buddy’s like, ‘Man, you should play here.’”

He played one Saturday night. “And that’s how it all started.”

Walker played in front of about 20 people at church, but performing at the coffee shop was a different story. “There were like over 100. I couldn’t even put the capo on my guitar I was so nervous. And I was singing every song so fast. I sang the first song in a minute and a half and it’s a three and a half minute song. Thomas Rhett’s ‘Take You Home.’ It probably sounded like a rap song when I was singing it.”

The crowd reaction was phenomenal.. “I broke the fire code. That was pretty cool. People standing on the bar. There was just too many people in that one place.’

Walker was hooked. “I just wanted to do it again, so I played at the old Dan McGuinness (Pub) on Spottswood. And I just kept playing. Kept developing that following.”

He decided to record a single. “I’d always wanted to put out a song. It was like a dream. Nobody else had done it around here. None of my friends had.”

Walker thought, “I don’t care if it sucks or not, I still want to do it.”

A buddy introduced him to Justin Rimer, co-owner of Crosstrax Studio and a veteran member of bands, including 12 Stones and Breaking Point. Walker recorded “Whiskey and a Dirt Road,” which he and his brother wrote, at Crosstrax. “I spent all my birthday money - 1,400 bucks.”

The song is about “seeing a girl at the bar,” Walker said. “ It could be anywhere. And just not having the nerve to talk to her. Then downing a couple of drinks and talking to her. And just riding backroads. Something we do in Covington.”

Rimer was impressed the first time he heard Walker. “I was like, ‘Man, there’s something going on with this guy,’” he said. “His voice is unique in a world where the country voices are very cliche. And I could see he was very eager. He was humble to a world he didn’t know anything about.

“We did this one song, ‘Whiskey and a Dirt Road,’ and we put it out on social media. And, literally, the next show he played sold out. In any town it’s hard, but it’s especially hard in Memphis. Especially when there’s no air play. There was nothing but a social media presence. And the show sold out.

“When you see something like that it’s like, ‘Wait a second. Something’s going on. People are attracted to this guy. They’re attracted to his music and they want to come out and see him.’ And that’s a rarity these days.”

He and Rimer began hanging out, Walker said. ““He actually became one of my really good friends after ‘Whiskey and a Dirt Road,’” he said. “We would go to (TJ) Mulligan’s on Trinity and hang out. One day he invited me: ‘Hey, I want to talk to you about some things.’”

“I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to start a record label for you and I’m going to sign you,’” Rimer said. “So, I literally started Crosstrax Records for him. And he’s my only artist.”

“I told him, ‘Man, I’m not scared to perform. If you want to do this, it’s on you,’” Walker said. “And we did.”

Said Rimer: “We recorded over the last year, working on different songs. And a month and a half ago we released the EP, 'Seth Walker: Volume 1.' With no radio airplay within 15 hours we were No. 20 on the iTunes country chart.

“Memphis doesn’t have a country guy like this that all of a sudden people are reacting to. You can’t make up sales numbers. And you can’t make up when you’re selling out concerts. It’s a real reaction, man. People are flocking to this guy.”

Walker hand selected the musicians for his band.

He met guitarist/backup vocalist Devin Matthews, 25, on Instagram. They played their first gig together as a duo at the old Double J Smokehouse and Saloon off South Main.

“Somebody taught me to read tabs,” Matthews said. “I never could read music. From then on I’d just figure it out. I played rock music for a really long time. I went through a really bad breakup and I was really depressed. Country. That’s what I fell in love with.”

Walker invited bass player Tim Van Eaton, 24, to play in his band after he heard him play in another band.

Van Eaton, grandson of J. M. Van Eaton, who played drums with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, acquired the nickname “Three Finger Timmy” after he accidentally stuck his pocketknife into one of his fingers three hours before their first show with a full band and an audience of 800 people. He got 12 stitches in his finger and was back before soundcheck. “I ended up playing the whole gig,” Van Eaton said.

Guitarist Vinnie Longoria, 20, began playing drums before he switched to guitar. His father David Longoria, a touring drummer in the ‘80s and ‘90s, played in several bands, including Roxy Blue, L. A. Guns and Slaughter.

Country wasn’t Vinnie’s first music choice. “I was a metal guitar player and rock guitar player,” he said.

His metal guitar style works in a country band, Vinnie said. “It makes it really full and colorful.”
Drummer Stephen Crump, 26, also comes from a musical family. “My cousin is Larry McCoy and he writes with Thomas Rhett in Nashville,” he said.

“I grew up in church, so most of the guys that I play with are gospel musicians,” Crump said. “My style is not rock and country. I have a very fast right foot. I don’t double bass pedal it. All my feels are very tasty. It’s not rock music at all. When most of these guys around here hear me play, they’re like, ‘I haven’t heard that in a country band. That’s different.’”

For now, Walker and his band are concentrating on performing. The band wants to eventually put out a full-length album.

Asked whether he’d pick baseball over music as a career, Walker said, “I’ve gotten to play baseball in front of 10,000 people and that’s amazing. But there’s no high like what we’ve done. Just played in front of huge crowds. Singing. I mean, it’s pretty cool. When they’re singing a song that we’ve done on the album.”

Seth Walker and his band will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday June 17 at The Bluff at 535 South Highland. Tickets: $10. Call: (901) 454-7771.

More posts are loading...