Where else in the entire United States of America can you capture the sights, sounds and smells of the blues other than on Beale Street in the summer?! The street has changed somewhat since I last stepped on the holy blues ground 5 long years ago. Now, more commercial/chain establishments such as the Hard Rock Café and Dick's Last Resort have a home on the street. There is even a pavilion in Handy Park. It is no longer simply a wide open field of grass. I guess this is what is commonly referred to as urban development but I couldn't help feeling that the street had somewhat sold itself out.
After some Cajun delicacies at the King's Palace, it was time to go blues'n. If you haven't been to Beale in the summer, you are missing out on the party of the year. For 3-4 blocks, the street is open to pedestrian traffic only. There are many street vendors to purchase a refreshment from while there are so many street entertainers (including a youth group who excelled at street acrobats), you require a sixth sense to capture it all. Outside of Ell Etc, the Carl Drew Band was holding court on the street and playing mean electric blues. I mean the kind of blues from down in the basement that only someone from the Delta can play. Bandleader Carl is an 80 year old blues singer/guitarist veteran. He and his band played some of the dirtiest and sweetest sounding real blues to be found on the street. Of course, you can't go to Memphis without encountering an Elvis impersonator. At the Legends patio, 50s-era impersonator John Brooks sounded a lot but didn't look anything like the King.
It was one of those rare nights when James Govan wasn't doing his thing at the Rum Boogie Café. We were treated to the sounds of the Delta courtesy of Blind Mississippi Morris' harp/guitar and Brad Webb's guitar. Billy Gibson of the Barnstormers kept a low profile in the corner but his harp jamming gave him away. Headliner Omar and the Howlers came out storming with their gutbucket Texas blues-rock. He was born and raised in McComb, Mississippi (birthplace of Bo Diddley) and started playing guitar when he was 13. The only places to play where at the black clubs. He was the only white guy amongst the talented black musicians. Together, they played a very rough style of blues. That same style continues today now that the current version of the band is back to the original trio format. They perform all of their own material that features their trademark powerful grooves. It was hard hitting houserocking stuff but I longed for the real blues of the street. Memphis James was at his usual gig on the King's Palace Patio. He played the best and most authentic Memphis sounding blues of the weekend. His performance was top notch and left me wondering why he wasn't headlining one of the street's big clubs. His left-handed playing and tone where reminiscent of the great Albert King. He ended real early (at midnight) so there was plenty of time for more of the street's offerings. Beale's loudest band, Kirk Smithhart, was at Mr Handys. He lived up to his reputation but was too SRV for me. Back to the Legends Patio where Fuzzy was jamming some mean blues. He is a sensational guitarist whose band comes with a 2 piano attack.
After spending Saturday afternoon, cruising on the Mighty Mississippi, it was time to cruise Beale. The night's entertainment kicked off with John Brooks and his tribute to Elvis show. Tonight his backing music (on CD) was so loud that you could barely hear John's Elvis-like voice. Then I couldn't resist to go and hear more of Carl Drew. Almost directly across the street at the New Daisy Theatre, Richard Johnston was doing his one-man act. Definitely one of the best solo acts there is.
Next, time to check out the clubs. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Anthony Gomes has recently relocated to Nashville to take the regular gig as the houseband for a new club called Congo Square. This makes it convenient for him to pick up additional gigs in Memphis. Tonight he was letting loose with some high-energy blues at BB's. He and his band played steamy, hip-grindin', funky, must-dance blues which was more like the work on his debut disc as opposed to the new release. At his young age, Anthony has extreme talent for getting interactive with his audience. Throughout a couple sets, he stopped in the middle of a song at least 3 times to challenge why no one was on the dance floor. Each time, this resulted in a packed floor within seconds. His flamboyant style and sexual innuendo lyrics were a hit with the ladies. He has been blessed with a voice that most singers need half a lifetime to develop. He is capable of singing softly one moment and furiously the next while throwing in some serious gruffness. His guitar playing will have guitarists twice his age green with envy. Even though I had just seen him the previous weekend in the Music City, he appeared to have considerably developed his stage presence and charisma! Together, he has the voice, guitar talent and looks that kill. The only thing negative that I can mention about his performance was that with enough amplification to play for the entire street, it was too loud.
Over the years the competition on the street has become fierce. A license is required to perform on the street. Some store fronts allow you to perform for hours while others will only permit limited hours. The club owners despise the fact that the true fans know the best blues is found out on the street. As I stood one last time on the street, I was amazed with all the music that could be heard pumping out of the clubs and from the street performers. Just like scanning the FM radio dial, all you needed to do was move slightly in one direction or another to tune into another band.
For more information about Memphis and Beale Street, contact: www.memphistravel.com and www.bealestreet.com
This review is copyright © 2001 by Tim Holek, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.