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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
B.B. King’s Blues Club, Memphis, Tennessee, September 22nd 2006
It’s true. The Mississippi Delta is shining like a National Steel guitar as we make our way north up Highway 61 to Memphis, and inexorably, Graceland.
    Simply put – if you are the sort of person that’s sad enough to have a list of “Twenty things to do before you die” then this should be in the top ten (and I don’t even care much for Elvis, but this is my second engrossing and thought provoking visit). And as it happened we arrived just after Serge and a party of his French Elvis-loving chums. Memphis itself seems to ooze music history at every street corner – and possibly the best is the home of Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Services, aka the still functioning (albeit after some years of dereliction) Sun Studios. A wonderfully tacky tour ends in that tiny studio where rock and roll history was made, and if you’re patient enough to wait for the other visitors to leave then a spine-tingling moment of communion with the Gods of rock and roll is guaranteed. Almost worth, as they say, the price of the ticket.
Actually after a few days in Memphis we’re museumed out. The excellent Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a new complex on the site of the original Stax Studios which fell into decay and were then demolished, after the label went bankrupt in 1975. It tells the story of the rise and fall of this most influential of labels, which “was more than just a label, it was a culture”, and which was both in terms of artistes and management (at least until the assassination of Dr King in 1968) one of the most successfully integrated companies in the country – as Steve Cropper is quoted as saying – “no colour ever came through the door”. In addition to the exhibits the place hosts a community-focussed music academy and performance space. The Smithsonian-affiliated Rock and Soul Museum starts in the Delta cotton fields and tries (not always successfully) to put the development of rock and soul into a social, economic and political context – the early galleries are really very good, with some excellent recordings, but as is often the case – in fact exactly as it should be, they raise more questions than they answer. I confess we took a rain-check on the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum – time simply didn’t allow; and as Chef Wendell, who cooked our supper on Thursday told us “well you can go, but it’ll just make you sad, and you’ll be back here saying ‘Wendell, I need a drink’”. He’s right. I’ve been there before. But it’ll take you more than a triple Tanqueray to get over such a profound and lasting experience.
In a sense Beale Street - where the Delta Diaspora assimilated themselves into the urban milieu before in many instances travelling north (taking their music with them) - is a museum too (others would say tourist trap). In the years following the murder of Dr King the area was largely cleared and what remains is surrounded by suspiciously silent yet swanky shopping malls, sports stadiums, expensive flats and a Gibson guitar factory, mostly making ES Series semi-acoustics and also the custom BB King ‘Lucille’. Believe me it’s better than a distillery tour, they only make 40 guitars a week (some stills make tens of thousands of bottles); they have a truly ‘interactive’ shop (you can sample thousands of pounds worth of guitars for as long as you like) and you can buy things there too (I got a key ring).
Brandon Santini (Delta Highway) and Sonny Boy Williamson's grave
Anyway, if you’re from out of town Beale Street is where you head for music. It’s on the street during the day and at night in the numerous clubs and bars that line both sides. And whilst some of it sounds appalling and offers uncomfortable echoes of New Orleans’s boozy Bourbon Street (don’t go there Memphis!) some is pretty good. We strolled into the Blues Hall and fell over Delta Highway, a local four piece outfit. Well, not quite local as outstanding vocalist and harmonica player Brandon Santini moved to Memphis a few years ago along with guitarist Justin Sulek, with music on their mind. They rocked a small house, made up largely of beer-slugging conventioneers, with well chosen standards like Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Eyesight to the blind’ (did I mention that we went to see Sonny Boy too, whom we found, characteristically, with a bottle of gin by his side?) and some impressive and intelligent Santini compositions (I liked ‘Done told you once’, ‘All the water in the ocean’ and ‘Cold as ice’). Sadly (from what I could tell) we didn’t get their regular rhythm section so whilst Santini and Sulek impressed the performance as a whole was a little lame, and even with the regular guys in place their new CD Westbound Blues plods along a bit. But Santini is the real article and if you’re a blues fan the CD is well worth the $15 it cost me in the tips bucket.
Right, Preston Shannon
So on what was supposed to be the last night of this extended review tour of the Delta (thanks Serge, could we go Club Class next time?) – it turned out that it wasn’t, but that’s another story – we headed to the premier Beale Street venue, BB King’s Blues Club for fried pickles, Memphis wings, slabs of BB-Q ribs, Delta fried shrimp and grilled Cajun catfish – mmmm, that’s nice. What’s nicer is the effortlessly accomplished B.B. King All-Star Orchestra, led (I think) by trumpeter Curtis Pulliam, who are backing Beale Street’s own Preston Shannon, a guitarist cut in a mould somewhere between B.B. King and Albert King, with a strong Stax-style singing voice. He’s recorded four albums of which the latest, Be with Me Tonight, has just been released. He’s playing to a mixed crowd of locals and tourists, and appropriately it’s a crowd-pleasing Friday night rhythm and blues set, with his band punching a heavyweight rhythm. He starts with Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd’s ‘634-5789’ and runs through tunes like the Rolling Stones ‘Miss you’, ‘Never make your move too soon’, a bluesy medley of Wild Cherry’s ‘Play that funky music’ and the Commodore’s ‘Brick House’ (did I tell you this was a dancing club?), Santana’s ‘Like the ocean under the moon’, ‘Soul Man’ and ‘Purple Rain’, interspersed with some classic Memphis style guitar blues – and if he was spare with his playing (preferring to sing and play up to the audience) when he did go for big solos he certainly didn’t disappoint us – here’s a man who knows his way through a Gibson. Why at one point he even tried to eat it! And like almost everyone else he was perfectly charming to talk to between sets and happily signed all the CDs I could buy (“To Kate, welcome to Memphis”).
B.B. King All-Star Orchestra
Yes it’s a soulful place right enough. And you don’t have to scratch too hard to find the blues too. It’s an easy going place, well worth a few days of anyone’s time. Every one’s pretty friendly, it’s not too hot; why, we even had ducks strolling through our hotel foyer. About the only thing we didn’t like were the tamales, which somehow didn’t quite match up to the ones we ate in Clarksdale, they were red hot. Why I’m sure even the King himself might have liked one, spread with peanut butter and dipped in jelly. Mmmmmm. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

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