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Memphis Magic at SXSW
(image) Local talent shines at Austin’s annual fest.

Rolling into Austin last week for South By Southwest (SXSW) was both exotic and familiar to me. Having first played there in 1990, this year offered more than five times as many bands, with more tech-oriented attendees (due to the growth of the non-musical conference) and a more pronounced Memphis presence than ever.

Right out of the starting gate, Austin saw a full slate of local favorites at The Memphis Picnic. Sponsored by the nonprofit Music Export Memphis, it featured catering by the new Austin branch of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, as well as the new Austin branch of the Amurica photo booth and "a line around the block before we opened," according to organizer Elizabeth Cawein.

The crowd flooded in to see opener Emi Secrest, a onetime Memphian now living in Los Angeles, who featured much-admired Memphis drummer Stanley Randolph, now playing for Stevie Wonder. One musician waxed enthusiastic about Randoph's playing with Secrest, noting that their set pulled in the audience and "set a tone of 'oh shit, this is good!' for the day." The show also featured Chris Milam, Marcella and Her Lovers, Dead Soldiers, and a fervent, soulful closing set by Southern Avenue. "It felt like being home," said Marcella Simien. "Every guest felt that energy, and that's why people stuck around all day. It was magical."

Dead Soldiers, who release a new album on March 31st, reprised their set the next afternoon with wild abandon, in songs ranging from anthemic rock to klezmer-like frenzy. Show-closer "Sixteen Tons" culminated in soaring group harmonies and drummer Paul Gilliam leaping over his kit: One could only feel for the band that had to follow them.

Amid all this talent, foremost in my mind was Cory Branan and the Low Standards, for whom (full disclosure) I was playing bass. A North Mississippi/Memphis native who has recently returned to Bluff City life, with a new album coming in April, Branan led me and drummer Shawn Zorn through one full band show per day, along with many solo sets. The highlight of the latter was his appearance at the Moody Theater (home of Austin City Limits) for the Country Music Awards' Songwriter Series, where his pithy lyrics and fiery picking brought the crowd to a standing ovation.

Scores of Memphians filtered into Austin as the week wore on, from new arrivals China Gate to the pedigreed Tommy Stinson-led Bash & Pop, featuring hometown guitarist extraordinaire Steve Selvidge, wrapping up their West Coast tour at Austin's Hotel Vegas on Wednesday. The next night was capped off by rock-and-roll lifers Joecephus and the George Jonestown Massacre. And Saturday featured an unofficial celebration of bands on the Goner label, including Memphis' own Aquarian Blood.

Bands rushed from one show to another, working themselves and crowds into a sweaty furor. Truckloads of tacos and coffee and alcohol were consumed, hearts and ears and minds caught in the sonic energy. Yet amid the clamor, more delicate moments also thrived. Mystic groove goddess Valerie June, now based in New York, was seemingly the toast of the town, with massive buzz and press coverage celebrating her new release. Coco Hames, newcomer to Memphis via Nashville, spun her classic pop songs with an assist from fellow Memphis transplant Mario Monterosso at the Merge Records Day Party, and again in a midnight show the following night. Meanwhile, Milam enlisted cellist Elen Wroten to add unique textures to his band. Both Hames and Milam have new albums arriving soon, as does Shannon McNally, another local favorite based in Oxford, Mississippi.

For her appearances at SXSW, McNally assembled a dream band featuring Memphian Stephen Chopek and the remarkable Charlie Sexton, best known for his guitar work with Bob Dylan. (Full disclosure #2: I joined them on keyboards at her Auditorium Shores show). Her liveliest show was at Lucy's Fried Chicken, where her eclectic energy brought cheers from a packed house. "Who else can go from Stevie Wonder to JJ Cale at the drop of a hat?" Sexton asked the crowd, to which McNally replied, "Same station, baby! Same station."

The most commercially promising acts at SXSW were arguably Memphis' hip-hop artists. The genre is more fully embraced at SXSW than in the early days, and rappers Blac Youngsta, Javar Rockamore, and Don Trip all represented the Bluff City well. The king had to be Yo Gotti, whose Thursday show had crowds crushing the edge of the stage, as he pounded out his direct-message-themed hit, "Down in the DM," as well as jams from his recent White Friday (CM9) album.

Finally, what could better evoke Memphis than the unique collaboration known as Big Star Third? Centered on original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, with indie-rock luminaries such as Mitch Easter, Chris Stamey, Mike Mills, and others trading off vocals and instruments, supplemented with a string ensemble, the group recreates the lush and inventive sounds of the once-obscure band's Third/Sister Lovers LP, as well as selections from earlier Big Star and Chris Bell records. Their SXSW show, in Austin's Central Presbyterian Church, was reverent and tragic, occurring as it did on the seventh anniversary of Alex Chilton's death. There was something magical in hearing Stephens' powerful drumming echo from the church's arched chancel. His singing captured the vulnerability of friendships formed in his teens; and Stamey and Mills captured the wry, blunt delivery of the band's chief composer well. Yet one could almost sense Chilton himself, slouching in the back pew, making wisecracks about the gigantic crucifix hanging over their heads, wishing he could have a smoke.

James Cotton, King of the Blues Harp, Dead at 81
(image) No matter who was headlining, James Cotton was always the act to see at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. Cotton was the direct link to the festival's namesake King Biscuit Flour Hour, and the radio show's harp-blowing star Sonny Boy Williamson. For many years Cotton, who became Williamson's protege, even claimed Sonny Boy as his surrogate father.

Cotton was the blues. As a child shining shoes in Downtown Memphis he'd sneak into Beale Street clubs on his hands and knees to see the players inside. Over the course of his long career he backed Howlin' Wolf,  toured with Janis Joplin and came to be regarded as the elder statesman of blues harp. Seeing the old master play in Helena, where he learned his craft at the feet of the previous old, master was about as close as any fan could get to a perfect blues experience.

James Cotton passed away on Thursday, March 16, 2007. He was 81.

Cassette Set: Nashville Meets Memphis

Less than two years ago, Seth and Coco Moody — the musical power couple that fronts Cassette Set, a new-ish local project featuring a pair of well-known Memphis musicians, Graham Winchester and Jack Oblivian — were gearing up for a big move from Wilmington, N.C., to Nashville to pursue new jobs and musical opportunities. As luck would have it, for what would be their last night in town, one of Seth's bands, Deadly Lo-Fi, got offered a gig opening for a touring Memphis act, Jack O and the Sheiks.

"That was a pretty random card throw," he says. "We were packed and about to move to Nashville, and Travis (Burdick, Deadly Lo-Fi frontman) hit me up to do a Monday night show, opening up for Jack and the Sheiks. We were literally driving the U-Haul on Tuesday, so my inclination was to skip it." His wife, however, would have none of it.

"Coco, I remember, said, 'Come on, it's Jack Oblivian. You gotta do it!' So I did the show. [Jack O and the Sheiks] had me sit in on sax, and we had a blast of a night, musically, and those guys are a blast without the music."

A week later, when the tour rolled through Nashville, Seth sat in with the band again. Friendships and a musical bond were formed, and for six months, Seth traveled from Nashville to Memphis for gigs.

"After the Nashville show, I came down and did Gonerfest with them, stayed the weekend, and played a DKDC show as well," he says. "Then, I guess every show after that, I'd get asked to come down. I'd stay the weekend, so it was fun despite the commute."

Wary of the music industry infrastructure and unable to make connections in the local underground scene, the couple grew restless in Nashville. After only six months in "Music City," Seth and Coco relocated to Memphis.

"Every time I'd come to Memphis, I'd meet more and more oddballs like myself, who were also coincidentally good musicians and songwriters," says Seth. "I'd stay at Jack's, and he'd drive me around the city, showing me the good thrift stores, where to get a goat burrito, etc. So as the six-month lease on our expensive Nashville apartment started nearing renewal time, we made the decision to get ourselves here."

Winchester, one of Seth's new bandmates, takes credit for playing at least somewhat of a role in that decision.

"Every time I saw Seth, I would tell him how much more of a Memphis dude he was than a Nashville one and how we were going to steal him one day." 

Seth has quickly become a local staple. In addition to playing with Jack O and the Sheiks, he's performed live and/or recorded with Kelley Anderson, Jesse Davis, and Faux Killas, to name a few, and has two original projects — Turnstyles, a duo with Winchester, and Moped 10, a trio with Coco and Oblivian.

Last year, Seth and Coco decided to start a covers band with Coco as the lead singer and Seth on guitar and keyboards. Winchester and Oblivian were quickly recruited to play bass and drums, respectively, and Cassette Set was born.

"The idea of the band is to do songs from the '70s and '80s but not to worry about the details so much," says Seth. "If you're coming up to a part that's intricate, just plow through it like the Kool-Aid guy entering a kid party."

Cassette Set has built a repertoire of over 40 revved-up versions of songs by Tears for Fears, Soft Cell, the Cure, the Cars, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, adding a "Memphis garage-rock flair" to new-wave classics.

"These are songs we grew up with. They're fun," says Seth. "We have a good time, and that's the whole point, right?"

Cassette Set, Loflin Yard, Saturday, March 18th, 10 p.m. Free.

Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm at Loflin Yard

Robert Cray brought his friend and Grammy award-winning producer, Steve Jordan, to Memphis to record his new record, Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm. As the album’s name suggests, Cray worked with Hi Rhythm as the backing band for the 11-track-long blues-and-soul LP, and it was recorded at the late Willie Mitchell’s Royal Recording Studio. Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm, will be released April 28th on Jay-Vee Records, and Cray is bringing his band to Loflin Yard this Tuesday, March 21st as part of the tour in support of the album.
Cray has spent the last 40 years recording more than 20 blues and soul albums, five of which have been Grammy award-winners, and to say that he knows his way around a guitar fret board and a soul hook would be an egregious understatement. Cray played on the Chuck Berry tribute concert film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll at Keith Richards’ invitation. The guitarist has played with John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton, and he was one of the blues legends to jam out on “Sweet Home Chicago” with Stevie Ray Vaughan at what would be Vaughan’s final performance. Now Cray has added the Memphis soul legends of Hi Rhythm — Reverend Charles Hodges, on organ and piano, Leroy “Flick” Hodges, on bass, and the Hodges brothers’ cousin, Archie “Hubbie” Turner, on keyboards — to his impressive list of musical collaborators, and the result is nothing less than delicious, a slice of Southern-friend soul.

Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm could easily serve as a soul music appreciation starter kit. The album opens with Cray’s interpretation of Bill Withers’ “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh,” and the drums drive an insistent beat, proving that Cray knows the kick drum is the heartbeat of every soul song. After Cray counts the song in, the tasteful organ flourishes are right in tune with the best that classic Southern soul music has to offer, and the strings swell, calling to mind the production of ’70s-era Stax recordings. The 11 songs on Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm touch on all the staples of soul. Dreamy ballads are on display alongside the Sam Cooke-style piano shuffle of “I’m with You, Pt. 1” and the psychedelic blues of “Don’t Steal My Love,” but no matter the atmosphere of the particular song, Cray’s impressive guitar work and soulful, slightly rasped vocals unite the songs.

Both in technique and tone, Cray’s guitar playing seems to take some cues from the legendary licks of Stax Records’ own guitar prodigy, Albert King. Cray’s delivery is clean and crisp, using little embellishment besides the telltale bent and pinched notes blues guitarists use to make their instruments wail and moan. And Cray does indeed make his guitar cry, wailing on each song over a lush bed of organs, bass, and drums.

Hosting local legends like Mark Edgar Stuart and Southern Avenue, Loflin Yard has become a destination venue for bands with a distinctly Memphis sound, making it the perfect location for Cray’s Tuesday-night concert. Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm just completed the first leg of their tour, and at the end of April, they will head to the U.K. for two weeks of shows in support of the new album. If the new album is any indication, Cray’s concert at Loflin Yard may offer the perfect shot of soul before he and Hi Rhythm fly across the pond to finish their tour. After all, Memphis and soul music go together like, well, spring nights and open-air, downtown venues.

Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm (with Steve Jordan), Tuesday, March 21st at Loflin Yard, 9 p.m.

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